Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paraphrase Against Interpretation

As said to an interlocutor:

....So, I don't think you've oversimplified anything. Rather, don't get a swelled head, you've vividly made your case. We're agreed, I think we are, that every paraphrase is an interpretation but not every interpretation is a paraphrase, even as I'd say some interpretations are paraphrases. 

Concise definitions of the two words are:

Paraphrase: express the meaning of (the writer or speaker or something written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity...

Interpretation: ...the action of explaining the meaning of something...

So, express the meaning against explain the meaning. 

Another example plucked from the Internet:

This above all, to thine own self be true. 

Most important, be true to yourself. (paraphrase) 

Shakespeare believes that the most important loyalty a person can have is to his or her own self. (Interpretation) 

To go to the second example first, the distinction there seems to be without a difference, just a few more words to say the same thing. 

But in your example, your "explanation" includes an insight into the relation and connection between the energies of political revolution and the spiritedness of youth. This insight illuminates part of the meaning of those lines in at least two ways that their paraphrase can't reach: it elucidates implied meeting, which paraphrase in its nature doesn't; and it explains these lines' meaning contextually by drawing out their meaning as they relate to the rest of the poem, which paraphrase in its nature can't reach.

So, your example makes clear that once the core of interpretation as explanation is fixed, then the latitude of what can comprise it takes it when it's evident in those widths, lengths and depths beyond expression as the core of paraphrase. 

Btw, it strikes me that an insupportable interpretation makes that point too. An interpretation not at all justifiable by the text, astride from the text,  is still an interpretation. And when it's that it's a country mile from a paraphrase.

Seen so, their difference now turns out, to my mind, not to be that fuzzy even as they can overlap...

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Note On Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out


On Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

Ok, on what I've quickly looked at, I'm a lonely voice. 

All reviews I read are enthusiastic about Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out, which is a wonderfully written, insightful, self revealing account of his relationship with convicted murderer, sociopath, con man--maybe Gatsby like, but not really, he never springs from his platonic conception of himself, but Kirn seems to think the analogy holds--Clark Rockefeller, one of his assumed identities as one of *the* Rockefellers and what Kirn calls him. 

Kirn flits in and out of his 15 year friendship with  Rockefeller, and spends a big chunk of the book's time wondering how he could have been taken in by him for so long. The book's latter portion concerns Kirn's attendance at Rockefeller's murder trial. Kirn pivots off the trial to revisit the long friendship from the angle of now knowing the truth about Rockefeller. Kirn sees now so much of what he missed before and wonders why and how he did.

Kirn's a smart fellow, graduate of Princeton and Oxford. His self examination leads to some understanding of how Rockefeller sucked him in, which I boil down to Kirn willing himself to believe that Rockefeller is indeed one of *the* Rockefellers so that their friendship is a ticket for Kirn inside the inner chambers of American aristocracy. 

The problem (for me at least) is how obvious it is, hindsight notwithstanding, simply from reading a bit in Kirn about Rockefeller, of whom before this I only had passing knowledge, what an utter phoney he is, how full of bullshit he is. Others, say Kirn's mother, Kirn's then wife, see it right off, but Kirn wills himself into obtuse blindness even as he recognizes contradictions in what Rockefeller says in the same conversation, breaches by Rockefeller of his promises, and the patent implausibility of so much of what he says. 

Which isn't to say that even somebody sensible couldn't have been taken in for a while, but for Kirn to have been so for 15 years: that's simply astonishing. And here's the nub of the rub: what Kirn wills himself to believe even in the face of so many counter instances corresponds to some depth of deficiency, of something missing, a hole,  in him that he never comes to terms with insofar as this book has it. 

So we have a certain discordance among Rockerfeller's quickly apparent bullshit and sociopathy manifest in depravities culminating in murder, Kirn's susceptibility to it for a decade and a half while others detect it right away, Kirn's attempt to diagnose what in him made him so vulnerable, and his failure to penetrate causes deeper than what he has on offer. This last marks, I argue, a failure in the book, as though we've eaten a promising, and in fact quite delicious meal that is satisfying as far as it goes but still leaves us hungry, wanting more, and, so, finally, dissatisfied. 

Therefore, as this last discordance--between Kirn trying to understand himself fully but not getting there--increasingly becomes the axis on which the book turns, depths not reached, I became somewhat numbed and inured while reading: more cons and lies and foolishness and bullshit, more susceptibility to it, and no forthcoming better insight into why. 

In this, there's a telling short sequence that I'm not sure even Kirn gets the ironic significance of. It's tucked in near the end part of the book, during the time of the trial. Kirn has dinner one evening with James Ellroy, who Kirn sketches only briefly but wonderfully. Kirn's a terrific writer. And they talk. And, in short, Ellroy tells Kirn, I paraphrase, "Enough with getting to the bottom of what this guy's about. You'll never understand him any better than you do. He is who and what he is." 

The sequence is telling for a number of reasons: Kirn defies the advice but gets to no further underlying truth about Rockefeller, let alone himself; as he gets no deeper truth neither do we and we get increasingly treated to variations on a theme growing shopworn; and post trial, Kirn, not heeding of Ellroy's advice, oddly reviews and slogs through a batch of emails and blog entries by Rockefeller having to do with him getting a severely injured dog from people in Kirn's town in Montana, which dog, Shelby, Kirn transports from Montana to Rockefeller in New York, described in the book's opening. Kirn's review of these emails and blog postings is irritatingly dull and marks a rare literary lapse in Blood Will Out. 

So I say, coming back to where I came in, Blood Will Out is a worthwhile book. The prose is crisp and clear. There is obvious intelligence behind it and up to a point we learn a great deal about Rockefeller and his hold on Kirn with some understanding why. But we don't, I argue, finally come away wiser in this sense: we remain befuddled  by what more deeply in Kirn allows him to trust Rockefeller sufficiently to consider him a friend over 15 years. That failure and what collaterally spins out of it comprise the ultimate weakness of Blood Will Out. 

Near the very end, Kirn in reflecting on everything in a summarizing way claims something like he conned Rockefeller as much as Rockefeller conned him. To me that claim comes across as pathetic self delusion and rationalization. But the rationalization of what? Perhaps, I speculate, Kirn unwittingly is acknowledging and trying to rationalize why he, in the final analysis, has come up short. 

A final (almost a foot) note: why I think Kirn is wrong to see Gatsby as a literary precursor to Rockefeller, who in fact models many of his cons and exploits and crimes off movies, tv shows and novels, is that Gatsby is indeed great as he paradoxically lives out a self created ideal, a Platonic self conception, noble, maybe like Don Quixote's quest is noble, in its fervency and his commitment to it even as it is built around a meretricious simpleton, Daisy, and is built on gangster corruption. There is totally nothing that is noble or redeeming or great in Rockefeller's sociopathic, ultimately murderous, bullshit.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Steve Martin's Born Standing Up


I just finished reading Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, his memoir of what led to his career in stand up, from childhood on, through that career, finally to giving it up. 

It's smart, at times tender, honest, but discreet in the self revelation. He's revealing enough about certain parts of his life but makes it "implicitly clear" there are just some things he's not going to talk about. The biggest personal part of 
what Martin goes public with are his fraught relations with his father and the belated, sad partial resolution of them. 

It's interesting to compare Born Standing Up to Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians insofar as they both describe the course of American performance comedy over periods of time, Nesteroff's more detached, Martin's written subjectively, from the angle of his own career.

What strikes me in comparing how they discuss comedy is that Nesteroff lays down a lot of information while Martin is both more synoptic and reflective in theorizing about his style of comedy and what it replaced. 

For example, Martin discusses the meaning of punch lines and how they in a sense dictate precisely when the audience laughs. But as Martin describes how as he develops his own comedy of the absurd, he dispenses with jokes and punchlines and leaves the audience to determine for itself when and at what to laugh. I'm not persuaded of this but it's intriguing.

Martin also reviews the idea of comedy involving a release of tension, saying he doesn't completely understand it, but that he structured his act around sustaining tension and not allowing for its release. Again, I'm not sure I'm persuaded by Martin's notion here but it's interesting. 

Martin is thoughtful, well read and intelligent. He majored in philosophy with a further concentration in poetry, English and American. He says he did well enough to be an A student and to consider doing graduate work in philosophy. As a sidebar, however, does it say something about the different universities in the California state system that when Martin went to the state university at Long Beach, he did unblemished work but when he began taking philosophy courses at UCLA he hit an academic wall and decided he'd gone as far as his aptitude would take him and he gave up his studies? 

Born Standing Up was a joy to read.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Of Tuvel


So there's this issue, what has been referred to as the "Tuvel Controversy."

I link to a description of it above.

In a nutshell, if I've cracked the shell without splintering the nut, a philosophy professor in Tennessee argues in a recent paper that just as there is gender fluidity, transgenderism, as in the case of Bruce now Caitlyn Jenner, there ought by philosophical parity be racial fluidity, transracialism, as in the case of Rachel Dolezal. This has been caused massive and hysterical outrage and caused the journal in which the paper was published to write an abject letter of apology in which it vowed to reconsider its entire editorial policy.

I haven't read the article, the incendiary outrage against it or the apology, only a about them such as the below link.

But fwiiw, I have a quick thought about the notion of parity in the two cases.

I'd argue that in the case of transgenderism, there is an innate, intense, unnaturally suppressed if suppressed drive to identify one's self as the gender that is opposite to one's sex. My premises here are that this drive is a complicated mix of the genetic and psychological and that it turns on essential differences between male and female genders that also involve the blend of genetics and psychology. 

In the case of race, if one is wholly genetically one race or another, and the case of Dolezal assumes she was genetically white with some Indian ancestry as well, but with no Black ancestry, then I'd argue that there is no parity. The reason is that if, as I assume, gender involves some irreducible mix of the genetic and the psychological, then that irreducible mix makes it a different case than the case of race without a genetic basis for claiming to be of a different race. 

In another way of putting it, the physical or the genetic is a necessary condition of transgenderism and the absence of the physical or the genetic makes transracialism a different case and an impossibility: one cannot be what one is not.

Now what I say is only an immediate and slight stab, a nick, a cyber paper cut at best, at a complex subject and I can already imagine my meagre shot at a bit of an argument being overrun by counter examples, basic logic and by expertise in fields where I have none. I'd be happy to see and consider any of that.

But it is surely a sign of our times that, I assume, a well intended, written-in-good faith philosophical essay that makes a serious argument should be subject to the hysterical outrage that has been levelled against it and Professor Tuvel. I've read that a law prof, Brian Leiter, has said that she may have a claim for defamation for what has been said about her by some in response. 

I think there are a lot of sacred cows that need slaughtering.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Thoughts On Andrew Sullivan's Essay On "Reactionism"


A too long exchange between a friend and me on Andrew Sullivan's long essay taking apart what he calls ultra right "reactionism," which he contrasts with conservatism:


....Alright, it got better after the first couple of paragraphs. I still found it annoyingly condescending, but, as I said, he's at least focused on the more interesting and important phenomenon, and, after all, there's his New Yorkish audience to appease. 

So, first, his definition of "reactionism" and its distinction from conservatism is flawed -- note that all of its putative features are really characteristics of revolutionists, and each of his historical examples is only a response to an initial radical effort exhibiting each of those traits: apocalyptic style, contempt for elites and institutions, revolutionary yearning. Indeed, with the appropriate definition of "elites" and "institutions", you're far more likely to find those traits among the "progressive" anti-Trump left today than among Trump or Brexit supporters.

And then there's the problem with his notion of the "modern world". It has its discontents, certainly, but those were a problem long before the recent wave of populist elite-rejection, and have almost nothing to do with globalization as such, or porous borders, or identity politics and its enforcement -- or automation or robots. See Arnold's "Dover Beach" for a contrasting idea. Sullivan's "modern world", however, is just the above litany of more or less recent developments that are being contested -- he implies it's some sort of inevitability, to which resistance is futile, but that's a fond delusion. Once upon a time fascism seemed like the "modern world" to many similarly deluded, and communism seemed like "the future" -- it's a convenient and oft-used rhetorical trope, but it's really just a way of begging the question.

He does at least collect three interesting figures, as representative "reactionaries", and gives them fair treatment. I couldn't find anything as coherent as an "ideology" that linked them, however, and his concluding attempt to modify that into a unifying "mood" seemed more about Sullivan himself than current politics. He's on the right track in talking about  culture, finally, and the natural reaction of all human groups if or when that culture is disrupted or threatened, but then quickly falls back on tired characterizations of the response, like "retreat into the past", reaching "backward for a more primeval and instinctual group identity" , which are really just a sop to left-liberal anxieties and if anything a projection of their own desires.

In the end, he himself puts together proposals along the lines of what he regards as "reactionary", but just toned down. He seems to think this differs from the mind-set of those he wants to call reactionaries, but in that he seems to repeat an error common during the campaign, as a writer insightfully put it: Trump's opponents tend to take him literally but not seriously, his supporters take him seriously but not literally. It simply means, in general, that one should look deeper than the remarks that are made in a rally, or a blog, or even a particular interview, and try to understand at least what the underlying sense might be....


...Not polishing apples when I say you have a better grasp of these issues than do I, but I found his distinction between "reactionism" and conservatism telling and made complicated because the two overlap. 

....Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power...

One sign of that distinction may be the split on the right, stronger during his candidacy and abating as he appears to be edging towards being more moderate  in governing than he was campaigning, between those implacably opposed to him and those invariably supporting him. Another sign may be the apparent diminution of the importance of Bannon, who I'd argue is Exhibit A for reactionism. Doesn't he embody in varying degrees what you well list: apocalyptic style, contempt for elites and institutions , revolutionary yearning? Aren't these traits what excited Trump's base and aren't these traits what drove #nevertrump among think conservatives, like say Krauthammer, who have come to some terms with him are somewhat mollified by his moderating but are underlying all that still appalled by him? Trump's was a rhetorically incendiary campaign and Bannon came on in due course to solidify and guide the fire. The #nevertrumpers despised Bannon as much as they did Trump.  It's hard to characterize today's Trump supporters because in our fast moving times Sullivan's diagnosis as it applies to Trump himself is somewhat stale, that caused by, as I say, Trump's moderating. Another instance of the split is the recent fight over health care and dealing with Obamacare. The Freedom Caucus seems to me to be be closer to reactionism in a spectrum between it and conservatism. The difficulties the passed bill will face in the Senate where there are more moderate Republicans is a sign of that same split. Trump is trying to thread a needle between those two extremes. I I digress but do not believe the reactionists can win to it. The planting of medical care as a right with government support has taken too much hold and the pure marketeers, who are also reactionists, will flail and fail in the attempt to implement their vision.)

Again, I found the references to confusion and distress at the modern world telling. My understanding of this is superficially broad and sketchy but I see globalism as I understand it and capitalism as irresistible forces that politics can't do much about and with the edge going to those able best to harness their abilities to what is changing and what will be vocationally be in demand. In the U.S. and Canada too unemployment seems to be going down (putting aside the stats on those who've stopped looking for work) but wages remain stagnant if not declining. Globalization and advancing technology are feeding and expanding the underside, the losers, in our "coming apart," to use Murray's phrase, in this round of "creative destruction. That underside is part of what Trump referred to as "American carnage," what he promised to resolve but likely can't, in bringing back manufacturing jobs now made *generally*  obsolete in America by both  automation and cheaper labour abroad. The underside is bewildered and enraged by what it has lost. Not to blame it, politics is bewildered by it too. The underside is marked socially by dysfunction, alienation, drug use, anti social behaviour, other modes of dysfunction that Murray traces in Coming Apart. The extreme economic nationalism of a Bannon carrying with it the dream of restoring an idealized American economic past, "MAGA," in my understanding seems to me a species of reactionism that Sullivan briefly describes well.

Finally, it may be that what you see in Sullivan's proposals as warmed over and toned down reactionism is a function of the overlap between conservatism and reactionsim as Sullivan has them and despite the differences between them he traces. He says he's sympathetic to some of what animates reactionism and to some of its ideas. Please forgive the long quote from his essay:

....Beyond all that, neo-reactionaries have a glaring problem, which is that their proposed solutions are so radical they have no chance whatsoever of coming into existence — and would be deeply reckless to attempt. Their rage eclipses their argument. The notion that public opinion could be marshaled to effect a total reset of American government in favor of a new form of monarchy, as Yarvin suggests, is, to be blunt, bonkers. And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly? Can the U.S. economy suddenly unwind global manufacturing patterns? Can America simply abandon its global role and its long-standing commitments to allies?

Of course not. And the Trump administration is, day by day, proving this. An isolationist foreign policy collapsed at the first gust of reality. A thinly veiled Muslim immigration ban would have accomplished nothing — most Islamist terrorism is homegrown — and went nowhere. The communities that once thrived off manufacturing or coal mining are not coming back. Even the most draconian mass deportation of undocumented immigrants will not change the demographics of America — or suddenly raise wages for the working class. Global trade has become too entrenched to be reversed. The dismantling of Obamacare dismantled itself — not because of an elite plot but because, when confronted with its being taken away, a majority of Americans balked.

There is, perhaps, a way to use reactionary insights and still construct a feasible center-right agenda. Such a program would junk Reaganite economics as outdated but keep revenue-neutral tax reform, it could even favor redistribution to counter the deep risk to democracy that soaring inequality fosters, and it could fix Obamacare’s technical problems. You could add to this mix stronger border control, a reduction in legal immigration, a pause in free-trade expansion, a technological overhaul of the government bureaucracy, and a reassertion of Americanism over multiculturalism. This is not an impossible direction for the Republican Party to go — though it would have to abandon its know-nothing narcissist of a leader and its brain-dead congressional leaders. The left, for its part, must, it seems to me, escape its own bubble and confront the accelerating extremism of its identity politics and its disdain for millions of “deplorable” white Americans. You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.

Reaction can be clarifying if it helps us better understand the huge challenges we now face. But reaction by itself cannot help us manage the world we live in today — which is the only place that matters. You start with where you are, not where you were or where you want to be. There are no utopias in the future or Gardens of Eden in our past. There is just now — in all its incoherent, groaning, volatile messiness. Our job, like everyone before us, is to keep our nerve and make the best of it....

To stick to my earlier example, it may be that the difference between reactionism and conservatism lies in the difference between a Steve Bannon and a Gary Cohn....


Thursday, May 4, 2017

Trump v Obama As Seen Through An Emersonian Lens


A friend:

My cultural excavation of the day is the opening pages of Emerson's Self-Reliance, which reads like a blue-print for President Trump's approach to the world.  It's surprising how closely he follows the Emersonian ideals and admonitions.  

...The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear....


...Pretty good.

As I read it, the boy wants some of the man in him and the reverse. Strengths and weaknesses go to both. Here may be a kicker: Trump has structures and advisors that mitigate the boy in him. Obama had 0 doing that to the man in him. He was all man, and suffered all the debilities of all his manliness, the culmination of which is paralysis, outsized caution making a foreign policy fool of him, a fool who more than once put his foot in his mouth and then tripped over himself from having one foot in such an unnatural place. There is circuitry in Trump's craziness, in his seemingly bizarre zig zagging. He seems in the end, with paths carefully plotted by those around him, to get, one way or the other, to where he wants to go, his child being the father of his man. 

This is beside who is ideologically preferable. It is a comment on who is more leaderly given Emerson"s dichotomy....